Two Alleged Hackers Charged with Defacing Websites Following Killing of Qasem Soleimani

Two alleged computer hackers were indicted in the District of Massachusetts on charges of damaging multiple websites across the United States as retaliation for United States military action in January 2020 that killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.  

Behzad Mohammadzadeh (a/k/a “Mrb3hz4d”), believed to be approximately 19 years old and a national of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Marwan Abusrour (a/k/a “Mrwn007”), believed to be approximately 25 years old and a stateless national of the Palestinian Authority, were charged in an indictment unsealed today on one count of conspiring to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and one count of intentionally damaging a protected computer.  The defendants are believed to be living in Iran and the Palestinian Authority and are wanted by United States authorities. 

“The hackers victimized innocent third parties in a campaign to retaliate for the military action that killed Soleimani, a man behind countless acts of terror against Americans and others that the Iranian regime opposed,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “Their misguided, illegal actions in support of a rogue, destabilizing regime will come back to haunt them, as they are now fugitives from justice.”

“Foreign hackers are a persistent commercial and national security threat to the United States,” said United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “Working with our law enforcement partners worldwide, we will aggressively pursue, prosecute and apprehend those who use the internet to attack American interests.”

“These hackers are accused of orchestrating a brazen cyber-assault that defaced scores of websites across the country as a way of protesting and retaliating against the United States for killing the leader of a foreign terrorist organization. Now, they are wanted by the FBI and are no longer free to travel outside Iran or Palestine without risk of arrest,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “Today’s indictment should send a powerful message that we will not hesitate to go after anyone who commits malicious cyber intrusions against innocent Americans in order to cause chaos, fear, and economic harm.”

According to the indictment, Mohammadzadeh has publicly claimed to have personally defaced more than 1,100 websites around the world with pro-Iranian and pro-hacker messages, which he began in 2018 and continues through the present day. Abusrour is a self-described spammer (sender of unsolicited emails for profit), carder (illicit trader in stolen credit cards) and black hat hacker (a hacker who violates computer security for personal gain or maliciousness) who has publicly claimed to have defaced at least 337 websites around the world, which he began no later than June 6, 2016, and continued through at least July 2020.

The defendants allegedly started working together on or about Dec. 26, 2019, when Abusrour began providing Mahammadzadeh with access to compromised websites. On or about Jan. 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a statement that the United States military had “taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The statement explained that the “strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” and described briefly General Soleimani’s past actions and future plans. The United States’ responsibility for General Soleimani’s death was widely publicized.

Following this statement, and in retaliation for it, Mohammadzadeh allegedly transmitted computer code to approximately 51 websites hosted in the United States, and defaced those websites by replacing their content with pictures of the late General Soleimani against a background of the Iranian flag along with the message, in English, “Down with America,” and other text. Some of the websites defaced were hosted on computers owned by a company with corporate headquarters in Massachusetts. No later than Jan. 7, 2020, Abusrour provided Mohammadzadeh with access to at least seven websites, which they defaced with a similar image and text. The defendants took credit online for their website defacements.

The charge of conspiring to commit intentional damage to a protected computer provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gain or loss, whichever is greatest. The charge of intentionally damaging a protected computer provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gain or loss, whichever is greatest. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers; United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling;  and Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division made this announcement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott L. Garland, Deputy Chief of Lelling’s National Security Unit, and Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. D’Addio of Lelling’s Securities, Financial & Cyber Fraud Unit are prosecuting this case with the assistance of Cyber Counsel Ali Ahmad of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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    Launch providers support the deployment of people and payloads, such as national security and commercial satellites or research probes, into space. The majority of these providers told GAO that U.S. space transportation infrastructure—located at sites across the country—is generally sufficient for them to meet their customers' current requirements. This situation is in part a result of the launch providers' investments in launch sites, along with state and local funding. Launch providers and site operators alike seek future improvements but differ on the type and location of infrastructure required. Some launch providers said that infrastructure improvements would be required to increase launch capacity at existing busy launch sites, while a few site operators said that new infrastructure and additional launch sites would help expand the nation's overall launch capacity. U.S. Commercial Launch Sites with Number of FAA-Licensed Launches, January 2015 - November 2020 The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was directed by statute to make recommendations to Congress on how to facilitate and promote greater investments in space transportation infrastructure, among other things. However, FAA's initial draft report was limited because it focused only on two existing FAA programs, rather than a range of options. FAA officials stated that they did not examine other options because of limited time and resources, and that the two identified programs could be implemented quickly because FAA has administrative authority to manage them. Leading practices in infrastructure investment emphasize the importance of conducting an examination of potential approaches, which can help identify how best to support national interests; avoid overlap or duplication of federal effort; and enhance, not substitute, participation by non-federal stakeholders. An examination may also help identify alternatives to making funding available, such as increasing efficiency and capacity through technology improvements. By focusing only on these existing programs, FAA may overlook other options that better meet federal policy goals and maximize the effect of any federal investment. Although FAA has already prepared its initial report to respond to the statute, it still has opportunities, such as during subsequent mandated updates, to report separately on potential approaches. Demand for commercial space launches is anticipated to increase in the coming years. FAA, the agency responsible for overseeing the sites where these launches occur, was directed by statute to submit a report—and update it every 2 years until December 2024—that makes recommendations on how to facilitate and promote greater investments in space transportation infrastructure. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review issues related to space transportation infrastructure. This report discusses launch providers' and site operators' views on the sufficiency of infrastructure in meeting market demand and assesses the steps FAA has taken to identify options for federal support of space transportation infrastructure, among other things. GAO reviewed relevant regulations; assessed FAA's actions against GAO-identified leading practices; and interviewed FAA officials, commercial launch providers, and representatives from U.S. commercial launch sites that GAO identified as having hosted an FAA-licensed launch since 2015 or having an FAA launch site operator license as of August 2020. GAO recommends that FAA examine a range of potential options to support space transportation infrastructure and that this examination include a discussion of trade-offs. DOT partially concurred, noting that it would provide its mandated report to Congress but not conduct a new examination of a range of options. GAO continues to believe that such an examination is warranted. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida alleging that Target Recovery Towing Inc. and Target Recovery & Transport Inc. (together “Target”) violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), by failing to obtain a court order before auctioning off a car belonging to a U.s. Marine Corps Sergeant who was deployed overseas.  
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  • Science & Tech Spotlight: Agile Software Development
    In U.S GAO News
    Why This Matters Agile software development has the potential to save the federal government billions of dollars and significant time, allowing agencies to deliver software more efficiently and effectively for American taxpayers. However, the transition to Agile requires an investment in new tools and processes, which can be costly and time consuming. The Methodology What is it? Agile is an approach to software development that encourages collaboration across an organization and allows requirements to evolve as a program progresses. Agile software development emphasizes iterative delivery; that is, the development of software in short, incremental stages. Customers continuously provide feedback on the software's functionality and quality. By engaging customers early and iterating often, agencies that adopt Agile can also reduce the risks of funding failing programs or outdated technology. Figure 1. Cycle of Agile software development How does it work? Agile software development is well suited for programs where the end goal is known, but specific details about their implementation may be refined along the way. Agile is implemented in different ways. For example, Scrum is a framework focused on teams, Scaled Agile Framework focuses on scaling Agile to larger groups, and DevOps extends the Agile principle of collaboration and unites the development and operation teams. Scrum, one of the most common Agile frameworks, organizes teams using defined roles, such as the product owner, who represents the customer, prioritizes work, and accepts completed software. In Scrum, development is broken down into timed iterations called sprints, where teams commit to complete specific requirements within a defined time frame. During a sprint, teams meet for daily stand-up meetings. At the end of a sprint, teams present the completed work to the product owner for acceptance. At a retrospective meeting following each sprint, team members discuss lessons learned and any changes needed to improve the process. Sprints allow for distinct, consistent, and measurable progress of prioritized software features. How mature is it? Organizations have used versions of incremental software development since the 1950s, with various groups creating Agile frameworks in the 1990s, including Scrum in 1995. In 2001, a group of software developers created the Agile Manifesto, which documents the guiding principles of Agile. Following this, Agile practitioners introduced new frameworks, such as Kanban, which optimizes work output by visualizing its flow. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), enacted in 2014, includes a provision for the Office of Management and Budget to require the Chief Information Officers of covered agencies to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development. This development approach delivers capabilities more rapidly by dividing an investment into smaller parts. As a result, more agencies are now adopting an incremental, Agile, approach to software development. For example, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced five Agile pilot programs. In 2020, at least 22 Department of Defense major defense acquisition programs reported using Agile development methods.  As the federal government continues to adopt Agile, effective oversight of these programs will be increasingly crucial. Our GAO Agile Assessment Guide, released in 2020, takes a closer look at the following categories of best practices: Agile adoption. This area focuses on team dynamics, program operations, and organization environments. One best practice for teams is to have repeatable processes in place such as continuous integration, which automates parts of development and testing. At the program operations level, staff should be appropriately trained in Agile methods. And at an organizational level, a best practice is to create a culture that supports Agile methods. Requirements development and management. Requirements—sometimes called user stories—are important in making sure the final product will function as intended. Best practices in this area include eliciting and prioritizing requirements and ensuring work meets those requirements. Acquisition strategy. Contractors may have a role in an Agile program in government. However, long timelines to award contracts and costly changes are major hurdles to executing Agile programs. One way to clear these hurdles is for organizations to create an integrated team with personnel from contracting, the program office, and software development. Clearly identifying team roles will alleviate bottlenecks in the development process. Figure 2. Different roles come together to make an Agile software development team. Program monitoring and control. Many Agile documents may be used to generate reliable cost and schedule estimates throughout a program’s life-cycle. Metrics. It is critical that metrics align with and prioritize organization-wide goals and objectives while simultaneously meeting customer needs. Such metrics in Agile include the number of features delivered to customers, the number of defects, and overall customer satisfaction.  Opportunities Flexibility. An Agile approach provides flexibility when customers’ needs change and as technology rapidly evolves. Risk reduction. Measuring progress during frequent iterations can reduce technical and programmatic risk. For example, routine retrospectives allow the team to reflect upon and improve the development process for the next iteration. Quicker deliveries. Through incremental releases, agencies can rapidly determine if newly produced software is meeting their needs. With Agile, these deliveries are typically within months, instead of alternative development methods, which can take years. Challenges GAO has previously reported on challenges the federal government faces in applying Agile methods; for the full report see GAO-12-681. Lack of organizational commitment. For example, organizations need to create a dedicated Agile team, which is a challenge when there is an insufficient number of staff, or when staff have several simultaneous duties. Resources needed to transition to Agile. An organization transitioning to Agile may need to invest in new tools, practices, and processes, which can be expensive and time consuming. Mistrust in iterative solutions. Customers who typically see a solution as a whole may be disappointed by the delivery of a small piece of functionality. Misaligned agency practices. Some agency practices, such as procurement, compliance reviews, federal reporting, and status tracking are not designed to support Agile software development. Policy and Context Questions In what ways can Agile help the federal government improve the management of IT acquisitions and operations, an area GAO has identified as high risk for the federal government? How can policymakers implement clear guidance about the use of Agile software development, such as reporting metrics, to better support Agile methods? How might resources need to shift to accommodate the adoption of Agile in federal agencies? What risks could those shifts pose? What updates to agency practices are worth pursuing to support Agile software development? For more information, contact Tim Persons at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov.
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  • International Competition Network Addresses Enforcement And Policy Challenges of the Digital Economy at United States-Hosted 19th Annual Conference
    In Crime News
    The International Competition Network (ICN) held its 19th annual conference on September 14-17, 2020.  Co-hosted by the Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the conference was the ICN’s first virtual conference.  
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  • Owner of Japanese Fishing Vessel Pleads Guilty to Unlawful Trafficking of Shark Fins
    In Crime News
    Hamada Suisan Co. Ltd., the owner of the Japanese-flagged fishing vessel, M.V. Kyoshin Maru No. 20, pleaded guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to aiding and abetting the attempted export of shark fins out of Hawaii in violation of the Lacey Act, the Department of Justice announced.
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  • Grand Juries Carry on During Pandemic
    In U.S Courts
    As the federal courts have gradually resumed operations with new pandemic-era health and safety rules in place, one aspect of the courts’ mission is on a fast track: the resumption of grand jury proceedings.
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  • Justice Department Releases Information on Election Day Efforts to Protect the Right to Vote and Prosecute Ballot Fraud
    In Crime News
    Continuing a longstanding Justice Department tradition, Attorney General William P. Barr today issued the following statement: “Americans have the opportunity once again to help shape the future of this nation by exercising their right to vote.  It is a right that forms the foundation of our democratic system of government, and is precious to all Americans.  The Department of Justice will work tirelessly alongside other federal, State, and local agencies to protect and vindicate that right as it is administered by State and local jurisdictions across the nation.”
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